Big History as a Religious Ritual

Today, I stumbled upon a fascinating example of science turning into religion, or, to be more precise, of people using science to create religious rituals.

It all began when I was asked to offer a short meditation at the beginning of next meeting at work. My current employer is the Catholic education network in Flanders, so you would think there is no connection between what I do now and my research on science-and-religion. But, on the contrary, I see connections everywhere. Maybe later I’ll write on the analogy between Ian Barbour’s models for the relation between science and theology, on the one hand, and how we can see the relation between religious education and ‘secular’ subjects, on the other hand. But this example has to do with an other link.

One of my colleagues works as an pedagogical advisor for Montessori schools in Flanders.  He told me about the Montessori’s concept of ‘cosmic education‘. This drew my attention, because I thought it to be very similar to ‘big history‘ (which actually originated in an educational setting). So my idea was to try and look for a way to integrate my interest in big history – actually, following Demian Wheeler, I prefer the term ‘holistic history’ – in my passion for education.

I soon learned that I was far for from original in looking for a mediation on big history. Remarkably, most of the techniques used in these suggestions are actually based on existing religious models. Parables and prayer beads: sounds familiar for people from different religious traditions. The example that I chose to offer to my colleagues is that of the cosmic walk. It is a form of meditation where the most defining moments in the history of the universe are marked along a spiral. You can walk along the spiral, reading a short description of these events. It resembles the Christian ritual of walking a labyrinth. But, of course, walking a sacred path is much older than Christianity, and much more widespread. One can imagine how walking as a form of ritual emerged from walking proper, when our ancestors walked through an environment that could be hostile to them, but that also made it possible for them to survive.

I imagine how recurrent walks to certain peculiar places in our ancestral environment became not only meaningful because they had a practical function, but also because they became evocations of existential questions, of facts of life. In other words, out of our evolutionary history emerges a ritual that, today, celebrates that evolutionary history.

The question is then, of course, if big history as a religious ritual replaces older religious traditions. Or is it, rather, the case that older religious traditions have managed to transfer some of the experiences, which our species has had during its big history, to us today?

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